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Psychotherapy for Chronic Illness and Disease

Research shows that trauma is more likely to manifest as soma (body) symptoms than as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Body symptoms have a wide range of presentations, including Fibromyalgia, cancer, chronic fatigue, skin conditions, and autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases alone are estimated to affect around 5-10% of the world's population, and the incidence of these diseases appears to be increasing. Common autoimmune diseases include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease. In autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells leading to inflammation and tissue damage. Research shows that chronic stress states can lead to persistent inflammation in the body. As Gabor Mate (The Myth of Normal 2022) observes “In the most health-obsessed society ever, all is not well”.


Mate asserts that our culture is afflicted by toxicity, contending that it is the culture itself that is ailing, not its individuals. He employs the metaphor of a Petri dish to illustrate the noxious milieu in which we exist. In laboratories, Petri dishes are utilised to cultivate microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, fostering conditions in which these microorganisms thrive and prosper. Nonetheless, should the environment within the dish become tainted, the microorganisms fall ill, stagnate, and deteriorate. Mate draws a parallel between the polluted dish and our culture, implying that when the environment is contaminated and toxic, the inhabitants also suffer from illness and decline. In our tribal days, we thrived in close-knit communities, relying on our intuition and instincts for survival. However, our modern lifestyle, and societal conditioning has disconnected us from our authentic gut feelings and distanced us from our communities, fostering an environment conducive to loneliness and dis-ease.


Trauma is an experience of overwhelm. It is a felt experience of overwhelm in the body. The combination of internal and external factors creates this felt experience in the body. Trauma is not an event although it might occur around an event.


Many people find it surprising to hear the word "trauma" and may not immediately connect it to themselves or an illness. If they haven't gone through a major stressful event like a car crash or a natural disaster, trauma can remain unnoticed for an extended period. People may also bear subtler, unnoticed traumas. Many individuals carry concealed childhood traumas due to early attachments, conditioning, and dysfunctional family dynamics. These factors can give rise to unconscious patterns that influence our thoughts, actions, and emotions well into adulthood, unless we consciously acknowledge them. These unconscious behaviours often conflict with our authentic gut feelings, leading to a disconnect from our authentic selves. This could manifest as agreeing when we want to decline or feeling compelled to engage in actions that don't align with our true desires. Over time, these unconscious behaviours and self-distancing can impose significant stress on our bodies. The trauma-disease connection refers to the somatised expression of unresolved trauma stored in the body.


Autoimmunity, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia are all conditions categorised as freeze responses to trauma. They are chronically locked in the freeze state, also known as the trauma response, more often than in the fight or flight response.

Prolonged periods of being in chronic freeze states can manifest as fatigue, depression, a sense of helplessness, powerlessness, and victimhood. Individuals may feel immobilised, restricted, and burdened, leading to procrastination and difficulty in mustering energy for daily tasks. They might experience a disconnection from their body and disassociation, and this state can even contribute to the development of chronic illnesses or autoimmunity. In many autoimmune diseases, inflammation serves as a prominent marker and is closely linked to these chronic freeze states.


My understanding of this topic comes from both academic study and personal experience, as I've grappled with the effects of trauma, including my own battle with autoimmune issues. I've developed the ability to interpret my own nervous system responses and recognise trauma in my life. This revelation occurred when I identified that my persistent stress had evolved into a state of overwhelm, marked by constant activation of the fight-or-flight response. I also felt helpless and disconnected from my body and emotions, often slipping into a freeze state. This transition into a trauma response eventually led to the emergence of gastrointestinal symptoms, later diagnosed as ulcerative colitis, a distressing condition characterised by chronic inflammation and ulcers in the large intestines. Despite my intense fatigue, I initially believed I simply needed more rest, yet I remained trapped in this heavy state. Over time, I traced my flare-ups back to situations where I felt disempowered, helpless, and victimised, realising that they consistently correlated with my entry into a freeze state, aka to a trauma response. It wasn’t more rest that I needed.


When the nervous system enters a freeze state, it needs safety, support, and expansion, and this is where psychotherapy plays a crucial role. Trauma-informed psychotherapy empowers individuals to rediscover a sense of safety within their bodies, even in places they thought were devoid of it. It helps cultivate this inner safety and broaden their capacity to handle discomforting emotions and sensations, enabling them to face such feelings rather than avoid them. As we learn to embrace the full spectrum of human emotions and self-support, we also unlock more joy, love, and compassion. Psychotherapy nurtures the development of compassionate presence, a vital component for healing, while examining the various aspects of ourselves and how they relate and contribute to our suffering. This process allows us to unburden those protective parts within us and provide them with a sense of security. People in trauma states often remain constricted as a means of self-preservation, but as the body begins to feel safe, it can expand into more compassionate and loving states. In this expanded state, curiosity, and non-judgmental awareness flourish, paving the way for growth and the healing process.


Psychotherapy for health is a holistic approach to illness and disease. It considers the whole person – body, mind, and spirit – as well as their environment, emphasises the interconnectedness of all aspects of one’s health, and takes the view that the mind and body are not separate, and what effects one, affects the other, “When mind, body and spirit are in harmony, happiness in the natural result” (Deepak Chopra). This approach supports individuals in understanding better how unconscious patterns and behaviours influence their health. In a gentle and safe space, and with compassion and curiosity we listen and explore the body's messages, identifying areas which may be contributing to ill-health to create new ways of being. By cultivating a loving awareness and getting to know all parts of ourselves we aim to increase health and well-being, reduce stress, be in touch with our authentic feelings, heal past traumas and build connection, compassion, and resilience. This holistic approach puts an emphasis on balancing and nourishing all parts of us and our lives to achieve wholeness and healing. It is a strength-based approach doesn’t take the view that there is something wrong with you that needs to be fixed, "Learn to read symptoms not only as problems to be overcome but as messages to be heeded" (Gabor Mate).


As a psychotherapist with a chronic illness, I understand the unique challenges that come with living with a chronic health condition and my personal experience has given me a unique perspective and a deep sense of empathy and understanding.


My approach to therapy is based on building a safe, supportive, and compassionate relationship, grounded in respect and trust. I believe that every human being has the innate ability for growth and reaching their full potential, my role as a therapist is to guide individuals towards a greater sense of well-being and self-awareness.


Healing is a result of feeling safe, empowered, and supported.


“It is health that is the real wealth, not pieces of silver and gold.”

Mahatma Gandhi.
























References:

Chopra, D. 1986, 2015. Quantum Healing: Exploring the frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine: United States: Bantam Books.

Levine, P. 1997. Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma: USA: North Atlantic Books.

Levine, P. 2010: In An Unspoken Voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness: USA: North Atlantic Books.

Mate, G. 2022. The Myth of Normal: Trauma, illness & healing in a toxic culture: London: Penguin Random House UK

Mate, G. 2003. When The Body Says No: The cost of hidden stress: Australia: Scribe.


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